Cupboard stalwarts

All foodies should make room for a few high-quality standbys

The Observer Food Monthly has asked top chefs what foods they could not live without. The magazine meant, I think, store cupboard items - a point missed by Raymond Blanc, who nominated Laverstoke Park Hebridean lamb and Rhug organic chicken. We get enough of that sort of intimidating advice; what was cheering in this feature was the endorsements of humble and mass-produced items. I was chuffed that Angela Hartnett picked Hellmann's mayonnaise, one of my guilty pleasures - and yes, I do make my own mayonnaise occasionally.

Listing one's own favourites is fun. Here are a few of mine. They start with two products with which, so crude are my tastes, I smother a lot of my food.

Encona Caribbean hot pepper sauce. The Cottage Delight brand is also good, as is a chilli sauce called Asia's Finest; but they do not have the zing of the Encona version (some find it too vinegary). I stir it into rice and noodle dishes, and spread it on to cold meats. You cannot use it as a marinade, however: it turns acrid on the grill.

Le Phare du Cap Bon harissa. While I make my own harissa, I use a lot of this as well - with couscous of course, and as a marinade, and even stirred into pasta dishes. Spooned into a jar and covered in oil, it keeps in the fridge.

Maille Dijon mustard. I have done a taste-test of this and Grey Poupon, and although I could not swear that I would distinguish them in a blind tasting, I think that I marginally preferred the Maille. I love - but, so far, I have found it only in France - the Maille with green peppercorns. It is so delicious, I'd happily eat it on toast for breakfast.

Cirio tinned tomatoes. Several chefs recommended the Napolina brand. I shall have to try this again; meanwhile, my view is that Cirio is the best. Also good, if you can find them, are Whole Earth organic ones, with a fresh flavour that tinned tomatoes usually lack.

Crespo Greek-style olives; Organico artichoke hearts. So many bottled olives are null and lifeless. These, with their wrinkled skins, have a salty richness and a pleasing texture. The Organico artichokes, unlike some brands, at least approximate the taste of their fresh counterparts.

De Cecco pasta. I agree with my betters: this is the brand to go for. It retains its firmness when cooked; many others go a bit mushy by comparison.

Crazy Jack fair-trade basmati rice. If you want to cook rice by the absorption method, you need to choose an appropriate brand. Tesco's, for example, is hopeless: you get a sticky clump (but boiling it works fine). After cooking, Crazy Jack's grains separate pretty well, as do those of a brand called Pearl.

Queen of the Coast sardines. Tinned sardines are fantastic value. These come in a spicy sauce, which I spice up further with harissa. You can warm them in the oven, and stir them into spaghetti.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.